Anonymous Club takes on a similar emotional shape to Barnett’s music, but largely fails to capture the same level of nuanced artistry.
Danny Cohen’s Anonymous Club derives its title from a 2013 song by Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett. On it, she conjures a mysterious but cozy atmosphere while singing about sharing a private moment with a friend. The coexistence of anonymity and togetherness is a central conceit of Cohen’s film, as it aims to draw a line from Barnett’s vulnerable music to the way it resonates with fans around the world. Near the beginning of the film, we hear Barnett explain that she had a comment box on her website and asked people to share how they felt. There were thousands of responses, and people were sad, hopeless, and tired. “A lot of people feel alone — maybe they’re not so alone.” The point, as is made throughout the film, is that Barnett makes people feel seen.
Anonymous Club functions like a tour diary for most of its runtime, but is more broadly a portrait of Barnett’s daily life. Shot on 16mm, it looks especially beautiful when we watch her on the road, but it largely looks inward, so we often watch Barnett in close quarters playing music or milling about. Notably, she considers her anxieties and depression, and for three years she kept an audio diary whose clips are excerpted and presented atop various scenes. She performs live, and occasionally suffers from imposter syndrome, wondering if the lack of audience reaction is a result of her fraudulence. She thinks about a fan who told her she was a horrible interviewee and should stick to music. Some days she wakes up sad, and there’s no real reason behind it.
These raw depictions of one’s everyday mental health struggles are occasionally stirring, but Anonymous Club rarely aims to be anything more than that. In one sense, this makes the film almost dead on arrival, as it functions as a far less effective piece of emotional art than Barnett’s own music. Across her discography, she sings with frankness and wit, and the fact that her music is simultaneously introspective and catchy makes the more melancholy lyrics more impactful — the dissonance is striking. Cohen’s film has a similar effect, but it’s considerably less interesting, as it usually boils down to showing crowds of people who are strongly entranced by her music. Barnett’s lyrics can vary in themes and moods, but the general point of Anonymous Club is always the same — the music provides a moment for collective bonding. Cohen even recognizes this when juxtaposing a scene where Barnett’s asked by a television host to explain who the song “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” is directed to, and then is seen performing it live in a different setting; the raw energy of the track is enough, and getting into the weeds about a song’s particulars isn’t nearly as cathartic.
But on the whole, Cohen’s creative decisions are hit or miss. At times, when Barnett is sharing some deeper ruminations, he ladles cinematic ambience atop them to heighten the mood. It’s a shallow maneuver that undercuts the power of Barnett’s own musings. It’s glaringly obvious that most of the film’s best moments are when we simply watch Barnett perform live; everything else often feels like scaffolding. There is one moment, however, when Cohen wisely decides to cut to black as we hear Barnett playing her guitar and repeatedly singing, “Stick a needle in my eye, I wanna die.” It’s another instance where we can see how her music is far more moving than anything the film itself can offer. And at its end, Barnett explains that her main goal is to empower people. Barnett’s music will remain affecting, and fans won’t need Cohen’s film to prove any of that.